Lucky to be blessed with ‘perfect’ mother-in-law

Ellen and her mother-in-law

Ellen and her mother-in-law - Credit: Archant

Ellen Widdup’s escape to the country

My mother-in-law said: “One day I will dance on your grave.” I said: “I hope you do. I will be buried at sea.” If there’s anyone more maligned in the world of stand-up comedy than mothers-in-law, I can’t think who it is.

She has become the archetypal pantomime villain, one accused of being interfering, overbearing, of visiting family too often, staying too long and refusing to accept that anyone could be good enough to marry her son or daughter.

And of course, I find these jokes amusing. Who doesn’t? Stereotypes are laughable for a reason; there is usually a lot of truth in them.

But funnily enough, my own mother-in-law bears no resemblance whatsoever to the fearsome dragons of parody.


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The first time I met her I had only been dating my husband (then boyfriend) for a few weeks.

I was nervous. After all I’d already gleaned a great deal of information about her which, if I’m honest, indicated an unhealthy, unshakable and impenetrable mother and son bond.

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A single parent who had fought like a tigress to provide for her only son through some very tough times, her whole world appeared to revolve around him. This was understandable.

But at age 24, he still lived at home, which was not so.

She did all his washing, cooking and cleaning and even occasionally joined him and his friends in the pub for a beer.

I felt absolutely sure I would be a terrible disappointment – that I would not be considered a suitable partner at all for her perfect boy.

But I needn’t have worried.

She greeted me with a beaming smile and a bear hug which I reciprocated with an audible sigh of relief.

“Oh yes,” she said approvingly. “You’re a lot better than the last one.”

All relationships have their ups and downs however. It would be foolish to think otherwise.

She was delighted when we moved in together in West Yorkshire but not so when we upped and left to live in London.

She was ecstatic when I fell pregnant, but it’s been hard for her being so far away from her grandchildren.

We have skirted around awkward conversations, negotiated boundaries when I married her son and she has probably had to hold her tongue on a number of occasions, watching us fumble our way through parenthood.

But I have got to hand it to her, through it all she has never once criticised me, belittled me, been controlling, interfering or manipulative.

I seek her advice because she doesn’t preach, and if my children need reprimanding, she asks my permission. She respects boundaries. Her most daring transgression is to buy them packets of sweets after a trip to the playground.

This is all quite astonishing really when you consider that this is a relationship renowned for its capacity for venom and petty spite – and recent research found an astonishing 51% of married women would prefer to stay home and clean the house than visit their husband’s mother.

A further 28% would prefer the dentist’s drill and 36% would rather visit the gynaecologist.

A whopping 60% described the relationship with their mother-in-law as “bad”.

Anecdotal evidence backs this up too.

One woman I know told me that her husband’s mother serves her fewer roast potatoes than everyone else. A sure sign of hatred.

Another complains that her mother-in-law constantly bleats the catchphrase “nanny knows best” when dealing with her grandchildren.

A third has a mother-in-law whose passive-aggressive tactics – which include regularly offering her daughter-in-law helpful tips on how to lose weight - go completely unnoticed by her husband, so much so that he takes his mother’s side against his wife.

I sympathise with the plights of these women of course but I can’t help wondering how it must feel to be a mother-in-law.

It must be hard for any woman who has already brought up a family and has so much knowledge to impart, to keep quiet. Their suggestions are often viewed as criticisms by daughters-in-law who want to find their own ways of doing things and increasingly feel stressed at combining working with family life.

Add the facts that both women care for the same man but in different ways and that the mother-in-law is grappling with the menopause as the daughter-in-law is having babies, and it’s bound to be an emotionally loaded relationship.

According to a brand new book on relatives by Katy Rink there are a number of different “types” of mother-in-law.

Among them are the bossy and overbearing “steamrollers”, the “snobs” who disapprove of their child’s choice of partner and the “reluctant grandmothers” who find everything about their role too much trouble.

This is not the first time mother-in-laws have been categorised in this way either.

Last year, and following a poll on the subject, Netmums coined phrases for eight different brands of mother-in-law, only one of which was favourable.

There was the “I know best” mother-in-law, the “uber-nana” who demands unlimited access, the disinterested “sorry-but-I-have-my-own-life” and the “I-think-the-sun-shines-out-of-my-son’s-bum” which is self-explanatory.

There was also the “needy”, the “Hyacinth Bucket” and the “glamorous granny”.

Finally there was the “perfect” mother-in-law who is young-at heart, independent, generous and good fun and, more importantly, toes the line between offering the support you need, and butting out the rest of the time.

Luckily for me I appear to have been blessed with this type.

A friend of mine, whose husband divorced her following years of family feuds, once said that you could never really hold the key to a man’s heart unless you had first charmed his mother.

But mine believes the reverse is true.

I charmed her son and so won the key to her heart. And she loves me because I love him as much as she does. A simple formula perhaps but I hope, for the sake of any future daughter or son-in-laws of mine, that it’s one I use myself when the time comes.

Please email me at EllenWiddup@journalist.com or find me on Twitter @EllenWiddup.

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